It is uncommon for baby products to share store space with adult sex toys. But at Red Tent Sisters, baby-birthing tubs, slings and baby carriers overlook books on sexuality, contraceptives, menstrual products and adult sex toys. Storeowners Amy and Kimberley Sedgwick, 23 see no contradiction in this juxtaposition. After all, their store caters to women's reproductive, fertility and sexual health needs.
"It is a natural progression of things. We start to menstruate, become reproductive beings and that is tied to our sexuality. We have reproductive organs to have sex and have children," says Amy Sedgwick, 29. The baby products in their store, she emphasizes, "Are those that facilitate the mother-infant bond. They are as much about the women as they are about the babies. We don't carry babies' toys. That is not what we are about. We are about women. Our hope is to reach women across the menstrual cycle and beyond."
The store's name is inspired by Anita Diamant's hugely popular eponymous book. Giving a twist to a Biblical tale, the book, through its protagonist, weaves in what the Bible does not mention - the lives of women. The title refers to the tent in which women of Jacob's tribe, according to the ancient law, were sequestered while menstruating or giving birth, and in which they find mutual support and encouragement from their mothers, sisters and aunts.
Similarly, the sisters hope that this Red Tent will create a safe space for women that would support them during times of menstruation, pregnancy, childbirth and menopause - basically their whole life cycle.
The store formally opened at Danforth, Toronto, in August this year, but its genesis dates back to last December. Kimberley, who had just finished her B.A. in English and gender studies "always wanted to open a book store", while her sister Amy, on a break after her daughter's birth, "was looking for a meaningful way to get back to the workforce" but in something of her interest and also with more flexibility in terms of family life.
Venus Envy, a feminist bookstore that stocked adult toys and menstrual products, and was often frequented by Kimberley as a student in Halifax, provided the spark for Red Tent. In addition to books and products, the sisters also wanted to offer services and organize workshops on issues such as fertility management, an area particularly close to Amy's heart. She is a trained occupational therapist.
By the end of last year, these fragments of ideas - Kimberley's retail store promoting sexual and reproductive health; and Amy's service centre providing education and counseling for women's sexual and reproductive health - crystallized and, a few months later, Red Tent Sisters came into being.
The workshops and services offered at Red Tent range from fertility, sexuality, contraception, pre/post-natal and menopause-related issues to child rearing and baby sign language. As for products, the inventory includes books on a wide array of women's topics, contraceptives, alternative menstrual products, adult toys, personal lubricants, menstrual charts, stickers, diaries and basal body temperature thermometers, gender-neutral baby clothing, music CDs, baby sign language DVDs, the La Bassine birthing tub and accessories as well as slings and baby carriers. The toys range between $15.95 for a Berman Massaging Bullet to $135 for The Cone, a uniquely shaped vibrator with 16 different settings. The most popular toys are the G-Twist and the G-Swirl, priced at $79. Another hot seller is the Rabbit, priced at $78.95, which was popularized by the TV comedy 'Sex and the City'.
To promote their venture, Red Tent offers a free introductory session to some workshops. Asked whether there is a need for discussions on sexuality in this part of the world, Amy says, "Although sexuality is very open in terms of advertising and discussions, and sex stores and public displays of affection are not illegal as it is in some parts of the world, I don't think women have very good self-esteem and I don't think they have a good connection with their bodies. Even though many things are discussed openly, there are much deeper issues that are not talked about at all. We have supposedly an open society, but the basic idea of equality between men and women as far as pleasure is concerned does not exist."
Adds Kimberley, "I was shocked to find out when I was looking for books on teen sexuality that many of the books I chose have been banned because they talk about masturbation. So, on the one hand, we are letting girls wear very little, but the idea of women actually pleasuring themselves is still unacceptable."
Though it is too early to predict the store's success, the response so far has been very encouraging, the sisters say. Though Anushree Agrahari, a customer, says, "Coming from India, we never discussed these things openly. But this place gives the confidence to sit, examine and discuss female sexuality. Red Tent Sisters has crossed cultural boundaries. Their various products sourced from different parts of the world, say it all." Some parents, though, are a bit thrown by the adult toys. Amy says, "There is no way to prepare people that we have adult toys as we were asked by our landlord not to display sexual products at the window. So, we have a sign on the door that warns parents to be mindful of their comfort level because there are products of a mature nature."
The sisters did consider placing the vibrators and adult sex toys in a separate, private area but, says Kimberley, "We didn't want it to be shameful. This is about embracing sexuality in a positive way and knowing that you can satisfy yourself, and we didn't want to stigmatize that."
As far as workshops go, it is those relating to children that have been lapped up. The workshop on baby sign language, Wee Hands, is fully booked, though many have also shown an interest in one-on-one Fertility Awareness Methods counseling.
Amy hopes that "by bringing in people for slightly more mainstream things, eventually women will start looking around and understand other aspects of store and slowly would be drawn to other deeper things that we promote". The skeins of wool and knitting needles for "stitch and bitch" sessions - to be held, like all the workshops, in a private room at the back of the shop - is also with the same hope.
Though driven by passion, the duo is very clear that they want this venture to be commercially viable. So, a very detailed business plan was drawn up and so far they have kept up with it. "There is always a potential risk that we won't meet goals in terms of our financial expectations, but we try to set realistic goals and feel it will be successful business venture," says Amy.
It is not often that one is able to translate one's passion and beliefs into a business venture. But the Sedgwick sisters have managed to do just that. As Amy remarks, "We had to decide whether it is a lofty dream or whether we could make it a reality and we decided we wanted to make it a reality."